In September 2021, Mayor Lori Lightfoot publicly proposed allowing the City of Chicago to by-pass the Cook County State’s Attorney Office and directly file civil asset forfeiture lawsuits against individuals alleged to be gang members, seeking to seize property and cash of those accused in civil, not criminal court. The state law on which this proposed ordinance is based, the 1992 Illinois Streetgang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act, has been used with little effect since it passage across the State of Illinois.
The ACLU of Illinois, which has worked to reform civil asset forfeiture proceedings on the state level, opposes this measure.
Background of Ordinance: The 1992 Illinois Streetgang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act
- This ordinance is based on an ineffective state statute that was passed in 1992.
- The rare times that the state statute has been utilized it has not be successful in collecting any substantial sums of money from those sued.
- This has been confirmed by the Illinois State Police and Kane County officials, who report that the cases have resulted only in unenforceable court orders restricting associations and activities.
- There is no evidence that the state statute has reduced gun violence or made any communities safer. Penalty enhancements like these do not result in behavioral changes or reduction in crime.
- Civil asset forfeiture and other regressive fines like those in this state statute and ordinance do not make communities safer. They further drain resources from communities that have already been systemically disinvested in.
- Studies show that civil asset forfeiture and regressive fines both disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities.
Substance of Ordinance: Undemocratic Power Shifting
- The main difference between the existing statute and this proposed ordinance is that it duplicates and shifts the responsibility for bringing these suits away from the elected Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to the unelected Corporation Counsel who is appointed by and accountable only to the mayor.
Substance of Ordinance: Due Process Concerns
- This ordinance exacerbates the existing due process concerns already at issue in civil asset forfeiture proceedings.
- While the state passed civil asset forfeiture reforms in 2018 that apply to the existing state statute, including enhanced due process, protections for innocent owners, and data transparency, these critical reforms are not included in this ordinance.
- The ordinance also affords no right to appointed legal counsel for those who are sued.
- Most people who will be faced with these suits cannot afford an attorney and will be forced to represent themselves.
- These suits open the door to an unrepresented person, who has not been convicted of a crime, losing their property, being forced to pay a fine regardless of their ability to pay, and being restricted as to their activities and associations.
Substance of Ordinance: Targeting Entire Communities
- The ordinance is vague and casts a wide net in its definitions of who can be sued, for what activity, and what property can be forfeited.
- The definition of “streetgang member” is broad enough to include parents, caretakers, family and friends.
- The definition of criminal activities ranges from violent felonies to graffiti/tagging.
- The property being forfeited could have only been “intended for use” or “indirectly used” which could easily include any property that anyone associated with an alleged gang member has access to, such as their grandmother’s home or car.
- The ordinance will result in targeting individuals who have not been convicted of any criminal activity, including community and family members whose property may be seized for reasons beyond their control.
Connection between Ordinance and the Already Flawed Gang Database
- The existing gang database is unreliable and has caused harm in communities across Chicago by labeling people of color, from children to 90 year olds, as gang members without any proof or due process.
- This Minority Report inspired, dystopian database has already been used to target and profile communities of color and, despite assurances for reforms and enhanced due process, the deeply flawed database continues to be in use as is.
- While proponents of the ordinance insist that the database will not be used to determine who will be sued under this ordinance, it is unclear what alternative information will be used and how that will be any more accurate than what is in the existing database.
- Furthermore, the ordinance shifts the burden to the accused to prove a negative-- that they are not involved in gang activity.
- Proponents insist that this ordinance will be used to target only “gang leadership,” relying on an outdated and inaccurate understanding of the modern structure of gang associations which are fluid, unstructured, and interconnected with their communities.
Negative Financial Impact of Ordinance in Communities
- The root causes of violence in Chicago communities are systemic policies of segregation and disinvestment leading to loss of jobs, opportunity, and equity.
- The focus of leadership to address these root causes should continue to be evidence-based solutions that invest in communities, such as violence reduction programs and expanding access to social and mental health services.
- There is no evidence that this ordinance will lead to decreased violence or increased investment, only increased divestment of communities from their money, property, and homes, further exacerbating the very problems the ordinance is trying to address.
- While the sums of money that are likely to be seized by this ordinance will not be substantial to the City, they will be substantial to the families and communities they are taken from.
- The ordinance is vague as to how any of the money and property that may be seized will be used and does not indicate that it will be used for community reinvestment.
- The ordinance indicates that “a minimum of” 50% of the money collected will be used to support victims and witnesses of “gang activity.” However, gang members are entwined with the communities in which they live, meaning that the distinction between victim, witness, and participant in gang activity are often blurred or non-existent. This reality is not contemplated in the ordinance.
- Traditionally, civil asset forfeiture has only led to increased “policing for profit.” The corresponding state statute explicitly states that the money collected would be used for further prosecution, raising questions about how this ordinance’s implementation would be any different.